Camberley inspired: investment and regeneration

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

The decline of the Great British high street has been one of the greatest concerns for local councils in recent years, leading to some innovative efforts to revitalise shopping districts. Karen Whelan, chief executive of Surrey Heath Borough Council (SHBC), tells more on her authority’s proactive approach to high street revival.

When Greg Clark announced that local government would be given the General Power of Competence under the Localism Act of 2011, it was heralded as the ability to do “anything an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited.” The new power centred around giving freedoms to work with others and to drive down costs. Many councils had already embraced these initiatives in the late ‘90s using previous powers at our disposal – an efficient council, seeking collaborative solutions to deliver services, was therefore already well-rehearsed.

The new powers sought to give councils “increased confidence to do creative and innovative things to meet people’s needs” and help them deliver their duties as local authorities. When you overlay the very tough austerity measures that local authorities have faced over the years succeeding this legislation, is it any wonder that many local authorities started looking at asset-backed investments to support the ever-increasing burdens on local authority budgets?

In two-tier local authority administrative areas, the difficulty of meeting revenue demands is significantly magnified. Many county councils are facing huge challenges and an ageing population – and family pressures have huge price tags just to stay still.  Local authorities need to be bold and brave to deliver solutions for the future sustainability of their services and preserve their place.

Large-scale property deals can make local authorities millions of pounds of income.  One has to question why councils, who have exercised the freedoms and flexibilities granted to them by government, now appear to be facing criticism over the scale of their deals? 

At Surrey Heath, the ethos has always been clear: use the powers to supplement either our revenue streams or deliver our priorities and objectives. Our investment portfolio focused on the local area includes a range of pure investment acquisitions alongside the purchase of sites to bring about major redevelopment projects.

Whilst we understand property investment doesn’t come without risk, the income our portfolio has generated offset the £2.7m reduction in government funding.

Camberley town centre

We had already delivered The Atrium development in 2008 in collaboration with Standard Life and Crest Nicholson. This was a significant town centre build of retail, residential, and leisure space.

In 2010, we embarked on our 10-year strategy to regenerate the rest of Camberley town centre. Initially, the plan was to do this in collaboration with private landowner stakeholders, but what became clear was private investors have many priorities countrywide and we would therefore be competing with other offers and the pressure of maximising their return on investment. 

It is also important to note that whatever happens to local towns across the country, it is always the local authority that will be asked to support the area when the private developers move out. So we took the decision to purchase town centre landholdings enabling better control of the whole regeneration programme. Since purchase, we have embarked on an ambitious timetable of delivery. It has seen its challenges, but the achievements to date outweigh the obstacles. 

Our journey is still in its early stages, but the difference we have made in less than two years is very encouraging.

Key projects

  • 2008:

- The Atrium mixed-use development and Park Street improvements complete. 

  • 2016-2018:

- Acquisition of the town centre’s main covered shopping centre and commencing its refurbishment;

- Acquisition of the Ashwood House derelict office building.  Berkeley Homes are now on-site transforming the building to 116 new flats and new commercial space;

- Funding achieved from M3 Enterprise LEP and £900k from SHBC to improve the high street and public realm;

- The acquisition of large areas of the London Road frontage earmarked for future redevelopment via the council’s Area Action Plan.


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